Are you a STEMinist?: Regardless of long-standing ambitions for increased involvement of women in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) occupation field, they still only account for 36% of graduates in the sector in the EU. Considering the importance of both societal and policy actions, how can the EU ensure gender equality and representation in STEM jobs?
By Virginia Herce (ES), Maša Veble (SI)
Figure 1: Women in STEM
Despite the general progress of our society towards gender equality, women are still underrepresented in STEM education and career fields today. Although girls’ scores in scientific literacy are equal or better than boys’ at secondary level education, women later account for roughly one-third of the graduates and workers in STEM. This issue prevails due to a number of factors, including existing gender stereotypes, a lack of role models, an inaccurate perception of women’s abilities in STEM, male dominance, and sex-based discrimination. With quite a disparity in the number of women in STEM among Member States, it is evident that some of them are doing better in reaching gender equality in education and employment, and that certain measures are working better than others.
However, we know that reducing the gender gap in STEM would increase employment and boost economies, contributing to the improvement of EU GDP per capita by EUR 610-820 billion in 2050. Reaching gender equality would improve the lives of many women in Europe, by enabling and encouraging them to work in their desired sectors, providing equal opportunities and fighting sex-based discrimination, thus positively impacting the economy and contributing to the progress of society.
Key Actors and Measures
The EU’s executive branch is responsible for proposing and enforcing EU laws and legislation. By adopting the education and training 2020 (ET2020) framework, they allowed Member States to exchange their best practices, while mainstreaming gender equality. By setting up an annual monitor as a way of tracking yearly progress on the matter, they gained cross-country statistics and confirmed that gender differences in tertiary education are reflected in labour market imbalances. In the Digital Education Plan 2021-2027 they collaborated with the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) and set out measures, like digital and entrepreneurial skill training for girls, to encourage women’s participation in STEM education. The European Commission also launched a number of initiatives, as Science: it’s a girl thing, which is a campaign aimed at promoting STEM among young girls, and programmes like the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action (MSCA) for training and career development of researchers, where MSCA boasts nearly 40% female fellows.
European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE)
An autonomous body of the EU, established to strengthen and promote gender equality in all EU policies, to fight sex-based discrimination, and raise awareness about the issue among EU’s citizens. They carry out research, provide data, produce studies, and collect statistics about gender equality in the EU. Their goal is to support well-informed policy-making, by delivering high-quality reports on the progress of the issue of gender equality in areas of concern of the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA). Their Gender Equality Index enables the monitoring of the progress of gender equality in different areas of each Member States’ working, such as money, health, work, and knowledge.
An entity of the United Nations dedicated to gender equality, the empowerment of women and advocating for their equal participation in all areas. They support UN Member States in achieving gender equality and designing policies and programmes to do so. The UN Women advocates for equal participation through campaigns like the International Day of Women and Girls in Science which takes place every year, and highlights the importance as well as promotes women’s full and equal participation in science.
Member States are crucial, as they are the ones with the competencies to create national legislation, encourage and fund different programmes and initiatives with regards to education and training. Additionally, Member States’ Ministries in charge of education are responsible for drafting the education curricula. The EU supports the sharing of good practices among its Member States, such as the Woman in Digital declaration designed to encourage women’s participation in digital and technology sectors, and Estonia’s Nudging to Support Stereotype-free Career Choices and Working Conditions, a research project aiming at developing encouragements for teachers and advisers in promoting stereotype-free career choices. However, there is still a large discrepancy among Member States and the number of women working in STEM, from 57% in Lithuania to 29% in Finland.
Keywords and Core Concepts
- STEM is an acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and encompasses all the subjects from these categories, including ICT (Information and Communication Technologies). The EU has a STEM coalition that monitors and supports Member States individual actions in promoting and facilitating access to STEM careers.
- Occupational gender segregation occurs when one sex dominates in a particular field of study or profession. In STEM it refers to the small proportion of women compared to men in these careers which can lead to discrimination against women, since it reinforces gender stereotypes, and worse job prospects for them as it narrows their employment choices.
- Digitalisation refers to the integration of digital technologies into everyday life, which is a growing trend globally. The European Investment Bank (EIB) analysis into the digitalisation of Europe shows digital firms have been a motor of innovation and job creation, especially within the STEM field, in Europe in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of the digital transformation, as a way of ensuring equality of access to education, so that anyone, regardless of their circumstances, can have the same learning opportunities.
- Gender mainstreaming involves integrating a gender perspective at all stages and levels of policies, programmes, and projects. The aim of gender mainstreaming is gender equality and overcoming discrimination. The EU institutions and the governments of Member States implement it via the gender mainstreaming cycle, where they define the relevance of gender in a certain policy, plan the process of implementing it, implement it, and then monitor the progress.
- Sex-based discrimination is discrimination on the basis of sex is when one is treated differently due to being a woman or a man. The most intensive forms of sex discrimination are misogyny and misandry.
- The gender pay gap (GPG) refers to the difference between the gross hourly earnings of men and women. In the EU, the average stands at 14.1%, meaning women earn 86 cents for every one euro a man makes.
Key issues and conflicts
Nowadays, the number of women who pursue, and achieve, tertiary education, meaning beyond high-school level, surpasses that of men in Europe. Women dominate in areas such as healthcare, the humanities, and law. The degrees in STEM are the exception, as out of every three STEM graduates, only one is a woman. Despite the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) showing an almost equal performance of boys and girls aged fifteen in science literacy, there is, nonetheless, a gap between men and women in STEM at the tertiary level.
It is the feeling of not being prepared, rather than an actual incapacity to obtain a STEM degree, that might be keeping some women away. In the assessment of their own abilities, girls are often influenced by the existing gender stereotypes and the lack of female figures in STEM careers when they are publicised. The way jobs are portrayed in the media, such as only showing men as engineers and only women as nurses, reinforces the idea that some careers are for women and some for men and deprives young girls of the possibility of having women role models in STEM. This leads to young women ruling themselves out of careers in which they might be successful. Research suggests that when young female students were given the opportunity to engage in talks with successful women professionals in STEM, their perception about their capabilities in the subject increased.
The presence of gender bias, the tendency to prefer one gender over another, also needs to be addressed. Studies have shown that a female postdoctoral applicant has to publish at least three more papers in a prestigious science journal to be judged as productive as a male applicant. This bias is even more prevalent in hiring processes: on average, employers in the STEM sector are less likely to hire a woman than a man with identical qualifications.
Many job positions within the STEM sector are not being filled. Twenty-one Member States have reported a shortage of STEM graduates, which is alarming considering it has the greatest growth predictions due to the digitalisation of our society. Increasing the number of women in STEM is, therefore, beneficial not only to help raise the total EU employment but also to lessen occupational segregation in this area.
Moreover, certain conditions of the field such as male dominance, the still-existing gender pay gap and fewer promotion opportunities can result in women being dissatisfied with their job and therefore leaving it. This is especially true for Engineering, which has the highest women exit rate from all careers.
- How can the EU institutions encourage Member States to implement more measures and programmes to ensure gender equality and representation in STEM jobs?
- Bearing in mind the low number of women pursuing degrees in STEM, in which ways can these programs be made more attractive to women?
- How can we ensure that women already working in STEM-related positions are encouraged to continue and develop instead of leaving the field?
- When will gender equality be reached? What conditions should be met for the EU to consider that gender equality has been achieved?
- What actions could be taken so young girls perceive STEM careers as a possible and rewarding path as a woman?
Things to look at
- “How to Engage More Girls in STEM”, a video by Ecology Project International, 2018
- “Why do so many women leave their careers in STEM?”, a video by Prasha Dutra, TEDxWilsonPark, 2020
- “Gender inequality in STEM is #Solvable”, a video by Deborah Berebichez, The Rockefeller Foundation, 2019
- “Closing the Gender Gap in STEM”, a video by Brenda Skozcelas, TEDxLSSC, 2017
- “Will You Be The Generation That Solves The STEM Gender Gap?” a video by Hina Patel, TEDxEdisonHighSchool, 2021
- “STEM gender gap: A way out”, an article by the European Schoolnet, 2020
- “Rebranding engineering for women: choose your favourite campaign”, an article by E&T, 2017
- “Picture a Scientist” a documentary on Netflix by Ian Cheney and Sharon Shattuck, 2020
- “A brief history of women in science”, an infographic by the Science and Technology Facilities Council part of UK Research and Innovation, 2016